The Horse's Mouth

by Joyce Cary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1193

Just out of prison, Gulley Jimson looks up his old friend Coker, the plain barmaid at the Eagle. Coker wants him to press a lawsuit over some of his paintings; if Gulley collects, Coker will collect from him. At last, Gulley manages to get away from her and return to his studio in an old boat shed. The shack roof leaks, and the walls sag. His paints and brushes are either stolen or ruined by rain and rats, but The Fall, although damaged, is there. The Fall, depicting Adam and Eve in their fall from grace, will be his masterpiece.

Gulley has a questionable reputation as an artist. Several years back, he painted some nudes of Sara Monday, startling portraits in the Impressionist style of a lovely woman in her bath. Sara lived with Gulley as his wife. When the breakup came, she kept the pictures and sold most of them to a collector named Hickson. She kept one or two for herself. Gulley, past sixty years old now, did nothing since the Sara nudes to enhance his reputation, but he still has faithful followers of eccentric outcasts and young Nosy. Nosy, wanting to be an artist, worships art and Gulley.

To complete The Fall, Gulley needed paints and brushes. In order to get Gulley to see Sara and secure evidence for a lawsuit to compel Hickson to return the Sara nudes, Coker buys him some paints and brushes. Gulley periodically works on The Fall, driven primarily by a compulsion to paint, sometimes by desire for a beer or some food.

When Coker pins him down and takes him to see Sara, Gulley is stunned to find her an aging woman to whom he feels drawn even while he pities her. Sara willingly signs a statement that she gave the pictures to Hickson; then she tries to renew her affair with Gulley, who responds with his old ardor. Sara has been badly treated by a succession of men, but, like Gulley, she has few complaints. Both feel that the short-lived prosperity and good times they enjoyed were worth the pain they currently are suffering.

Working intermittently on The Fall, Gulley frequently tricks Coker into buying him paints. Once, she persuades him to go with her to Hickson to try to get the pictures or a settlement for them. When Hickson seems ready to settle a small sum on Gulley, even though Hickson legally took the pictures in return for a debt, Gulley slips some valuable snuffboxes in his pocket and is caught by Hickson and the police. Although this bit of foolishness costs him six months in jail, he maintains a bemused tolerance for Hickson.

In jail, Gulley receives a letter from the self-styled Professor Alabaster, who plans to write a life history of the painter of the Sara Monday pictures. Gulley thinks the idea ridiculous until he decides there might be money in it. He is energized with an idea for another masterpiece, and after his release, he hurries back to the boat shed to finish The Fall and get started on his new work. He finds Coker pregnant and in possession of the shed. Betrayed by her lover and her job at the pub lost, she moved to the shed with her mother. Gulley has to find some way to get The Fall out. Before he makes any plans, he meets “Professor” Alabaster. Alabaster not only wants to write Gulley’s life history but also hopes to sell some of Gulley’s work to Sir William Beeder, a collector who admires the paintings possessed by Hickson. Gulley tries to interest Alabaster and Sir William in one of the new masterpieces he is going to paint, but Sir William has a great desire for one of the Sara nudes or something similar.

Gulley still hopes to interest Sir William in The Fall, but when he goes again to the boat shed, he finds that Coker’s mother cut it up to mend the roof. Gulley decides there is no use in losing his temper again and doing something foolish; then he will land back in jail before he can do another masterpiece or make a sale to Sir William. Besides, he suddenly realizes that he is tired of The Fall.

In the meantime, if Sir William wants a Sara nude, perhaps Gulley can persuade old Sara to give him one of the small ones she kept; but Sara, understandably nostalgic, loves to take out the portraits of her lovely youth and dream over them. Gulley tries various schemes without success.

When Sir William leaves London, Gulley persuades Alabaster into giving him the key to Sir William’s apartment. He pawns the furniture and art collections to buy paints and reluctantly lets a sculptor rent one end of the drawing room to work on a piece of marble. Gulley, in what he considers proof of his honesty, keeps the pawn tickets so that Sir William can redeem his possessions. He uses one wall for a typically epic painting, on which he cannot stop working, that he is sure will please Sir William. When the owner returns unexpectedly, however, Gulley decides to talk to him from a distance and ducks out.

With faithful Nosy, Gulley goes to the country for a time. There he devises a new scheme to obtain money, but a thug beats him up and sends him to the hospital. While recuperating, Gulley has another vision for a masterpiece and writes Sir William about his idea. Alabaster replies for Sir William, who still insists on a simple, nonepic, not-painted-on-my-wall nude and thanks Gulley for “caring” for the furniture.

By the time Gulley gets back to the boat shed, Coker has had her baby and is firmly installed there. Gulley is welcome but does not feel at ease. Gulley moves into another empty building and sets about preparing the wall for a painting of the Creation. He is aided by Nosy and several young art students he charms. He tries repeatedly to get a nude from Sara. When Hickson dies and gives the Sara pictures to the nation, Gulley is famous. Alabaster finds a backer for the life history, and distinguished citizens call on Gulley to see about buying more pictures from him. In the meantime, Gulley copies one of his old pictures of Sara from the original in the Tate Gallery and sells it as a study to Sir William for an advance payment of fifty pounds.

He makes one last try to get a picture from Sara. When she refuses, he inadvertently pushes her down the cellar stairs and breaks her back. Realizing that he is running out of time, he races back to the Creation and paints like a madman, trying to finish the picture. He never completes the painting; his landlord tears the building down over his head. Thrown from his scaffold, he regains consciousness in a police ambulance and learns that he has suffered a stroke. He does not grieve. Drawing on the wisdom of a lifetime of resistance to conventional thinking, he tells a nun who says he should pray instead of laughing, “Same thing, mother.”

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